Ten Years Ago, Japan Went to Iraq… And Learned Nothing
Forgotten lessons of a military misadventure
A decade ago, Japan sent troops to Iraq. The Japanese Iraq Reconstruction and Support Group was Tokyo’s first multilateral military mission outside of U.N. peacekeeping operations.
To observers at the time, it felt like a watershed moment for a country that, since World War II, has been reluctant to use force in pursuit of its foreign policy. The deployment paid off for Japanese-U.S. relations, but at great risk to Tokyo and to the troops on the ground.
Ten years on, Tokyo should have learned from its experiences in Iraq. But it hasn’t. With only one minor caveat, the Japanese military is as hamstrung as ever.
From the outset, the Iraq deployment seemed to require everything that the Japanese military couldn’t do. Combat? Off the table—Japan declines to use force except in cases of national self-defense.
That policy derives from Article 9 of the postwar constitution, which asserts that “the Japanese people forever renounce war” and bans air, sea and land forces. By any reading, Japan’s military itself should be unconstitutional.
Tokyo has managed to skirt this prohibition by calling its military the “Self-Defense Forces.” But semantics cannot hide the fact that Japan maintains the very army, navy and air force that its constitution forbids.
Still, these forces rarely left Japan’s borders even as the country quickly rose to become one of the world’s leading powers. Pacifist Tokyo managed to contribute indirectly to world security by sending money instead of troops. Japan contributed $13 billion to the cost of the U.S.-led war with Iraq in January and February 1991.
After that conflict, and under much criticism, Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu stressed that this s0-called “checkbook diplomacy” was inadequate. “I think it is widely understood we have to make personnel contributions as well as financial ones,” Kaifu said.
Shamed by the experience, a committee of lawmakers under Ichiro Ozawa led a transformation of the Japanese military from a Cold War defensive force to an army of peacekeepers.
By connecting international security efforts to national self-defense, Japanese policymakers were able to begin sending the military on U.N. peacekeeping missions. But the Iraq war wasn’t a peacekeeping operation.
Prime Minister Jun’ichiro Koizumi had pledged Japan’s support for U.S. president George W. Bush’s “war on terror” as early as February 2002, according to the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper. The Bush administration maintained that invading Iraq was a necessary part of the international campaign against Islamic terrorists.
Koizumi dutifully promised Bush that Japan would back America in Iraq, knowing full well that doing so would hurt his image among the Japanese public. The U.S.-led coalition attacked Iraq in March 2003. The prime minister voiced his strong support … and his disapproval rating quickly leaped to 49 percent.
Koizumi was acutely aware of Japan’s need to show solidarity with the U.S., which bases significant forces in Japan and helps protect the island nation—in effect, allowing Tokyo to maintain its official pacifism without actually exposing itself to attack.
At the May 2003 U.S.-Japan summit, Koizumi assured Bush that “Japan wished to make a contribution [to the reconstruction of Iraq] commensurate with its national power and standing.”
The first Japanese troops would arrive in Iraq eight months later.
No combat please, we’re Japanese
To legalize a deployment to Iraq, Koizumi pushed the Iraq Assistance Special Measures Law through parliament. The law echoed existing legislation governing Japan’s participation in U.N. peacekeeping—a deliberate conflation that belied just how new and strange the Iraq mission would be for the Self-Defense Forces.
Koizumi was no stranger to ad hoc special measures laws. In October 2001, his cabinet pushed through the Anti-Terrorism Special Measures Law which justified Japan’s dispatch of maritime logistical support for the U.S.-led air and naval coalition in the Indian Ocean.
Like the anti-terrorism law, the Iraq law forbade participation in active fighting, specifically requiring that Japanese troops go to “areas where no combat is taking place.”
Koizumi submitted the Iraq bill to the Diet in the middle of June 2003. Since the end of the invasion phase of the war in April, there had been 78 coalition fatalities in Iraq. And by the time Japanese troops deployed in February 2004, there were another 400 coalition fatalities.
In its search for a non-combat zone in a country descending into an all-out insurgency, Japan settled on the city of Samawah, in British-occupied Muthanna province. An October 2003 fact-finding mission deemed Samawah safe for the Japanese, thanks in part to the 1,000 Dutch troops already keeping order there.
In December 2003, Japan dispatched airmen to Ali Al Salem air base in Kuwait to set up air supply operations. The following month, a 30-man contingent arrived at the Dutch Camp Smitty in Samawah to negotiate a lease of land for a Japanese base. A hundred more Japanese troops deployed to Samawah in February. The air support mission got fully underway in March.
The Japanese came in peace with engineers and money and a mandate to rebuild schools and supply fresh water. Over 30 months, 5,600 Japanese troops rotated through Samawah. It was the most heavily-armed mission in Japan’s postwar history, but regulations practically forbade the troops to use their weapons.
Strict rules of engagement banned lethal force except in direct self-defense. If Japanese troops fired their weapons, it might prove they were in a combat zone and thus require that the troops go home. The Japanese couldn’t even go on patrol alone. They relied on Dutch, British, Australian and Iraqi forces for protection.
Col. Masahiro Sato, the mustachioed leader of the advance deployment to Samawah, was deeply unhappy with the bizarre, even absurd, circumstances. In 2007, Sato retired from the military and joined the Liberal Democratic Party.
Discussing his time in Iraq in August 2007, Sato said that his troops had been ready to rush in and protect their Dutch comrades if the Dutch came under fire. Sato’s intentions violated Japan’s rules of engagement. But the colonel didn’t care. “If we were to go to trial under Japanese laws for this reason, we would be happy to do so,” he said.
The Self-Defense Forces have always had a tense relationship with Japan’s anti-military mainstream media. But the Iraq deployment flung the troops into the spotlight. They had no choice but to perform.
The dominant news narrative in Iraq was of dutiful and capable troops doing their best in spite of political obstacles. Japanese TV had rarely broadcast so much footage of Japanese troops at work. Once-camera-shy commanders became news celebrities. The exposure began a boost in popularity for the Self-Defense Forces that continues today.
But public anxiety intensified when militant groups kidnapped four Japanese civilians in Iraq. One never made it home. Al Qaeda in Iraq beheaded a 24-year old Japanese backpacker.
Video of the incident surfaced in November as the government debated whether to extend the Iraq mission another year. Koizumi stood fast on extending the mission. “I consider the situation in Samawah to be relatively stable,” he insisted.
A year later, things were looking less certain. In 2005, supporters of Shi’ite militant Moqtada Al Sadr began battling for control of Samawah. Al Sadr’s supporters fomented opposition to the Japanese presence. There were reports of planned attacks on the Japanese.
In August, Iraqi police suppressed a large demonstration, leaving one person dead and 46 injured. Despite the violence, Koizumi once again pressed for an extension.
The prime minister had invested a lot of political capital in the deployment. He successfully fought opposition attempts to bring home the troops, finally relenting in July 2006.
The Japanese left behind a country at least partly governed by a new democratically-elected government. The air mission continued to transport supplies between Kuwait and Iraq until December 2008.
With zero casualties and only two shots fired—both negligent discharges—the mission was bloodless. But what did it achieve? The Japanese didn’t bring anything to Samawah that civilian contractors couldn’t. Their work fostered local goodwill, but it also undermined Koizumi’s leadership back in Japan.
America added another country to the list it whipped out whenever it needed to prove there was international consensus on the subject of the Iraq war. But in terms of national interest, Japan gained nothing truly meaningful.
The air mission did bring some minor benefit. In 2009, Japan deployed patrol planes to Djibouti to help counter Somali pirates. Tokyo’s Iraq experience helped inform the construction of Japan’s first postwar, overseas military base—and subsequent aerial patrols over the Gulf of Aden.
Before building the base, Japan signed a status agreement with Djibouti to smooth over any potential legal issues related to troops serving on foreign soil. The agreement exempts servicemen from local prosecution and allows them to carry weapons within the host nation’s borders.
Japan is just one of many nations conducting counter-piracy operations in the Indian Ocean. But Tokyo is not part of any international task force off of Africa, nor is it working under the U.N. It’s hard to imagine Japan could have unilaterally deployed forces to Africa without first going into Iraq.
Lost lessons for South Sudan
The recent Japanese deployment to South Sudan parallels the Iraq mission. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon had been trying to get Japan involved in Sudan since June 2008, specifically requesting Japanese helicopters to help transport the thousands of peacekeepers at work on the ground.
But for Tokyo, the question of participation once again hinged on the non-combat principle.
Following the military’s assistance in the aftermath of Japan’s 2011 tsunami, public trust in the Self-Defense Forces was at an all-time high. The news media actively discussed the need to revise Japan’s peacekeeping constraints.
Since gaining power in 2009, the Democratic Party had been discussing a possible revision of peacekeepers’ weapons restrictions. Unfortunately for Japanese troops, the government never actually got around to addressing crippling rules of engagement.
Working in tandem with the ban on collective defense, the weapons restrictions ensure that Japan only deploys as a non-combatant. But what use is a humanitarian mission when defenseless troops are unable to leave their camp for fear of being attacked?
That’s exactly what’s been happening. Japan sent 210 engineers to Juba, the capital of newly-independent South Sudan. As in Iraq, things went well at first. Under Rwandan protection, Japanese troops built roads and bridges.
But at the end of 2013, South Sudan exploded in sectarian violence. Starting in December, Japan confined its troops to their camp. They might as well not have been there at all.
Iraq should have taught Tokyo that a military deployment cannot succeed without reasonable authority to use deadly force. It’s still possible the Diet will revise the ban on collective self-defense, but it seems likely that absurdly restrictive rules of engagement are here to stay.
Koizumi jumped the gun in 2004. He felt Japan needed to support the U.S. war, but sending the Self-Defense Forces was pointless as long as laws barred the military from acting like a military.
Japan’s Iraq mission was a marginal humanitarian success … and a political failure. Ten years later, nothing has changed. Hamstrung by policy, law and public opinion, the military has returned to its core self-defense and disaster-relief missions.
In many ways, Japan acts as though its misadventure in Iraq never happened.